Striking Greek demonstrators began marching through central Athens at the start of a 48-hour nationwide strike on Tuesday to protest a new round of painful austerity measures in order to receive rescue loans to avoid bankruptcy.

More than 5,000 police were stationed across the city centre as tens of thousands of workers prepared to march from various points in Athens towards parliament to join hundreds of demonstrators who have been camped out in Syntagma Square for several weeks.

The latest strike comes just as Greece is seeking parliamentary approval of an austerity package worth €28 billion euros in spending cuts and tax hikes by 2015 to secure continued funding from a €10 billion international bailout package.

The European Union and International Monetary Fund have also made the approval of a four-year privatisation programme worth €50 billion a condition for releasing a €12 billion loan installment which the government needs to repay maturing debt next month.

In the strike action, government offices and banks were shut and ferries anchored at ports across Greece. The walkout also halted train services, closed schools and public services, and left hospitals and ambulances operating with emergency staff only.

Even Greek journalists and actors at the State-operated theatre joined the walkout.

Flights were being grounded for several hours both days during work stoppages by air traffic controllers from between 8 am to noon and 6 pm to 10:00 pm local time.

Newspapers were filled with stories outlining the consequences facing Greece if parliament does not pass the austerity package.

Greece’s 300-member parliament began a three-day debate on the new austerity measures Monday, just as it received assurances that French banks are willing to defer Greek debt claims and ease pressure on the debt-ridden country.

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou appealed to deputies from both his Socialist PASOK party and main conservative opposition New Democracy party late Monday to back the measures. He said it was the last chance for Greece to get back on its feet.

The conservative opposition has refused to back the measures saying the country has already been hit by a deep recession to be able to handle further tax hikes and pay cuts.

Parliament is expected to vote on the austerity package on Wednesday, with implementation on Thursday if it is approved.

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